All at sea

Christopher Priest: Inverted World
Introduction by Adam Roberts
Gollancz SF Masterworks 2010 (1974)

This is a beguiling read. We’re presented with so much in the way of supportive material, detailed ‘facts’ about what is happening, about what we’re supposed to be witnessing, and yet we are left doubting everything. Like the notional protagonist of the tale we are left — literally and figuratively — all at sea; and though it’s indicated at the end that the protagonist intends to return to shore, the reader is still left floundering.

The opening seems to suggest we’re on solid ground. Helward Mann lives in a city called Earth. It’s towed forward on rails towards and beyond what is declared an optimum point but cannot ever keep still; only apprentices in the various guilds that keep the city mobile are ever put in a position to understand why it’s imperative that the city moves and then they dare not ever contemplate any alternative. Much of the novel is told from Helward’s point of view, meaning that we are bound to accept his perception of what the truth of the matter is; but little by little, when our attention is shifted from Mann’s autobiography to a third-person narrative and to a outsider’s perspective, we realise that all is not as it seems.

I shall follow convention and not reveal the ‘twist’ that occurs towards the end, though to be honest it didn’t take much to fathom what the ‘reality’ of this future world was well before the final sections.

Still of roller coaster track from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D4ghPtgRAww

The central concept of a city moving forward on four sets of tracks is so arresting that it carried this reader through most of the book till it was stopped, quite literally in its tracks, by a barrier no land-based transport can cross: the sea. Other writers have taken this, or a similar concept of a community on rails, and run with it, notably Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines (2001) and China Miéville’s Railsea (2012) and Iron Council (2004), but here the solid ground I mentioned earlier is not as reliable as we at first thought: it’s moving, and the city has to move inexorably forward or be doomed to extinction.

This novel at first appears to be in the so-called hard SF genre. There’s discussion of hyperbolas, of infinite worlds bound within a finite universe and a mysterious energy that distorts time and space. To the distress of true scientific geeks none of it stacks up, however much it appears acceptably convincing to the innocent reader in terms of pushing the narrative on.

What Inverted World really boils down to, however, is perception: not just physical perception — through our eyes, our sense of touch and so on — but what our minds have been conditioned to believe is reality. This is Helward Mann’s problem: the mental paradigm he has inherited and accepted through personal experience is challenged by outsiders who function according to different paradigms. Interestingly, Helward’s challenges come from two strong independently-minded women who upset the status quo of this male-dominated urban society in ways that fundamentally question the parameters under which it has existed for two centuries.

I see this as a philosophical novel, one which looks askance at our beliefs in progress (towards what? an illusion?), our devastation of the earth (this was a novel written in the shadow of the Cold War) and blind acceptance of self-perpetuating political systems. Its successful attempts to disorientate us are underpinned by shifts in points of view and authorial voice and by its matter-of-fact prose stripped of any poetry or passion.

Whatever its failings — and there are a few, such as a cast of characters with rather cold personalities whom it’s hard to empathise with — it’s still a haunting read; and maybe those ‘failings’ are deliberate, attempts at opacity and distancing to serve as a warning of the kind of bleak future mankind is heading towards. Towards Hell, perhaps.


In the Ultimate Reading Challenge this counts as a book by an author I’ve never read before

22 thoughts on “All at sea

  1. I read this very early in my foray into scifi, and I hadn’t read much older SF, so while I enjoyed it, I judged this mainly as one a hard SF premises, failing to see its possible other merits as, like you say, a philosophical parable. I should update my review a bit.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, Bart, after I’d scheduled this review I read other takes on the novel, including yours, and concluded that despite it appearing to be hard SF Priest wasn’t really interested in the mechanics but in messing with our minds. It’s almost metafictional in that Helward’s perception is our perception, and if he’s wrong then so our we.

      And little of the practical aspects in towing a city — logistics and supply, for example — or simple human curiosity — about local populations, about power sources, about weaponry (crossbows, for heaven’s sake?) — make logical sense. That we’re persuaded to suspend disbelief for a great proportion of the novel is testament to Priest’s skill; that we feel cheated at the end is surely a deliberate ploy?

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      1. Yes exactly, I felt cheated, while I liked the build-up. I should read more of Priest.

        I had thought about removing that review (and a few of my other early ones) before, as it’s not really up to my standards anymore, and as I felt I didn’t do the book justice, but I always decided against it as I like the idea of my blog as a chronicle for myself. Anyhow, with a few extra lines echoing what I wrote in the comment above, and, more importantly, with a link to your review that ‘justice’ part now is solved. Thanks!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I approve of updates, or even second reviews. I too look at some of my earlier critiques and realise I may have missed the point, or been too harsh, maybe even not harsh enough; and we’re allowed after all to change our minds, aren’t we, we’re not as arrogant as many politicians are — I hope! (The odd second review I’ve done has been in response to acquiring or reading a different edition, definitely a good excuse to give a revised opinion!) Anyway, thanks for the link. 🙂

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  2. Interesting review; I can add one more city on rails – in Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel 2312 there’s a city on Mercury which needs to move incessantly, otherwise… but I’ll not spoil the fun 😉

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      1. It’s a pretty decent SF novel, full of intriguing and well executed ideas. City on rails is only one of very many 🙂 There’s a spoiler-free review of it on Re-enchantment if you’d like a bit more exhaustive opinion 🙂

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  3. I know a young author who writes short novels that tend to mess with the readers minds. He will go so far as to lead his readers to feel they know what is going on, and then twist the plot so far left that one tends to feel exhausted and cheated. I asked him about it one time; why he does this. He said it was fun for him to hear from readers who ask, What the hell was that?” I stopped reading his books. I don’t like feeling cheated.

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    1. I agree, Sari, feeling cheated not once but many times is not nice (apologies about the litotes, British understatement taking over there!).

      However, the author here carefully flags up dissonant features in his narrative so that only an unobservant reader can fail to see that things are not as the protagonist believes them to be.

      Quite how that belief came about in the first place is obscured by by the pseudo-scientific red herrings that are placed in our ways, but Priest makes the point that we shouldn’t always believe the apparent evidence of our senses.

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  4. Perception, indeed. I just finished reading THE INFERIOR by Peadar O Guilin (sorry, my keyboard’s not liking the accented letters right now to spell his name properly), where the characters are cannibals. This is the norm of society, the appropriate behavior for survival. I saw some reader reviews immediately give the book 1 star for being disgusting, etc. but–isn’t that the perception? Our society perceives eating people as morally wrong, yet in a land where vegetation is poisonous, what else can one do but eat or be eaten? Sure, we may take the high ground now, and die by starvation now, but when a society finds survival in the reprehensible, then we know the reprehensible won’t *stay* reprehensible in that society for long.
    This book sounds intriguing, by the by. I’ll have to seek it out. 🙂

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    1. Cannibalism is an interesting area. It’s manifested differently in different societies. Some kill their enemies and eat them, others nibble at deceased relatives. Sometimes the whole body is up for grabs, other times it may only be selected parts such as the brain. Sometimes it may be undertaken out of necessity, such as those starving because their plane crashed in the high Andes; other times it’s a ritual to supposedly partake of the victim’s qualities such as bravery. Things like this are never simple and straightforward.

      And then there’s the natural squeamishness: famously Brits think the French eating horsemeat is disgusting, but why not any other meat? As you emphasise, perception is the thing. (And let’s not mention fava beans and a nice Chianti. Oh no, I’ve just done it, doh!)

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  5. I think that although this is on the rails it goes much to far off the rails to appeal to me! It would have me railing at it, or falling over the railings at least.
    I am amazed that other writers have followed the same tack; it would never have occurred to me as a useful idea for a narrative in a million years.

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    1. For what it’s worth this town called Earth
      That goes by rail for you’s a fail.
      Its four-track plot for you grips not,
      Yet at its core a metaphor
      Sits clear as day. So come what may
      I like it, so let’s let it go!

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      1. Such metafour or metafive
        I would not care to keep alive;
        Suggesting Earth is on a track
        Is something needed to track back;
        To write, not something I would dare,
        The wheels have come right off; so there!

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  6. Wow. I’m interested. I love philosophical sf type of books. Your last paragraph is something I wrote yesterday before I read your post, (about failures maybe intentional to create an atmosphere or to convey a message. )

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    1. Inconclusive endings are at the very least frustrating, and for some of us a sign of a less than perfect book. But life is rarely conclusive (except for death itself) so it’s just conditioning, as with fairytales, that leads us to expect all the plot lines neatly tied up, preferably with a bow! But, as you say, if the ending leaves us not just guessing but also thinking and considering, that can’t be a bad thing, can it?

      This work, included in the canon of significant speculative fiction by being counted by the publishers as a ‘masterwork’, may well be one you’d enjoy: without giving away any spoilers, there are Spanish speakers involved and Portugal puts in a brief appearance… 😁

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  7. My library didn’t have it, so you may want to know that I just ordered it. It looks like a book I’d love. At Goodreads, many of the reviewers that like what I favor gave it 4 or 5 stars. They said what you said, -there’s faults or caveats to it, but all in all, I believe what it gives you is of worth.
    The moment you spoke of Spanish and Portugal, you got me. (I also have a tender spot for a dystopias, not a huge sf fan, but there’s some books in this genre that have my complete attention and respect.)

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    1. Oh, I hope you’re not disappointed, the Spanish element is peripheral, a clue to what’s actually going on, on the Portugal connection is the conclusion we have to draw in retrospect! But your favoured reviewers will be spot on: it’s not great literature but it expands the mind. 🙂

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